Physics students and faculty are well-represented in the College of Science 2020 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Awards. These awards provide 11-week employment in the summer for students, though this year, because of closures during the covid-19 pandemic, the research may have to be stretched out over the academic year.

This year’s physics student awardees are:
Hunter Nelson advised by Tuan Pham (Mathematics)
Rohal Kakepoto advised by Janet Tate
Alan Schultz advised by Hoe Woon Kim (Mathematics)
Alexander van Balderen advised by Liz Gire
Jessica Waymire advised by Matt Graham
Ryan Wong advised by Bo Sun

Students from other departments working with Physics faculty are:
Emily Gemmill, (Biochemistry & Biophysics), advised by Weihong Qiu
Ruben Lopez (BioHealth Sciences) advised by Bo Sun

Congratulations all!

Physics professor Weihong Qiu with Haelyn Epp, a BioHealth Sciences SURE awardee in 2019, in Prof Qiu’s biophysics laboratory at OSU (image from the CoS SURE website).

Three OSU Physics alums are among 2,046 graduate students nationwide to receive the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program award that pays stipend and partial tuition for 3 years. Congratulations to all three! See the Impact article from the College of Science for some more details about other College of Science GRFP recipients.

Head shot of Mirek Brandt at Oregon State
Mirek Brandt in 2017

Mirek Brandt (BS in Physics & Mathematics 2018) worked in the Graham group while at Oregon State. His thesis was on The Impact of Crystal Morphology on the Opto-Electronic Properties of Amorphous and Organic Crystalline Materials. He won a Goldwater Scholarship as an undergraduate and then moved on to the University of California at Santa Barbara where he is doing his doctorate in Astrophysics.

Katelyn Chase (BS in Physics 2018) worked in Bo Sun’s biophysics laboratory during her time at OSU and wrote her thesis on Synchronized Cellular Mechanosensing due to External Periodic Driving. She is now a Ph. D. candidate at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, conducting research in the Gitai bacterial biology laboratory, studying cytoskeletal proteins. She is interested in proteins involved in bacterial cell shape formation and maintenance. Her photo shows her in Iceland in January.

Patrick Flynn (BS in Physics and Mathematics, 2018) did his senior thesis project on Localized structures in a diffusive run and tumble model for M. xanthus, as part of the Complex Systems REU at the University of Minnesota with Arnd Scheel (Bo Sun was the local advisor).  Patrick also contributed to the linear solver code for the Monte-Carlo simulations performed in David Roundy’s research group in Physics.  Patrick is now a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Applied Mathematics at Brown University. He is studying the Euler- and Vlasov-Poisson models appearing in plasma and astrophysics. His NSF GRFP proposal was about answering questions such as the existence and stability of solitary waves, or the existence of solutions containing many interacting solitary waves, for the Euler- and Vlasov-Posson equations.  Patrick says he is “very enthusiastic about being able to address questions that have been partially addressed by the physics community to discover new mathematics, and in turn inform scientific discovery. Of course, my time at Oregon State was very formative in this regard, and I still heavily rely on what I learned in the mathematics and physics programs there. After all, I first learned what a dispersion relation was from David Roundy!” The accompanying picture shows Patrick on the Brown Campus.

See the Impact article from the College of Science for some more details about College of Science GRFP recipients.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, the Physics Department, like the rest of Oregon State University, scrambled to get its course offerings ready for remote learning in a few days.  Professor David Roundy and his teaching team scrambled as hard as anyone – and incorporated some beginning epidemic modeling into the computational physics class so that the students would begin to acquire the skills that will serve them well as members of the technological community of which they are now junior members.

About the class:

PH366 – Computational Physics – is a course in which students learn how to solve mathematical equations in real-world, complex situations where analytical, “pencil-and-paper” solutions are far too difficult.  For example, it’s easy for a student in Introductory Physics to solve a simple differential equation to find a solution in the form of an equation that describes how a ball falls towards the earth under the influence of gravity, a constant force near the earth’s surface.  But add extra forces that describe real conditions like air resistance, wind and the earth’s rotation, and a simple equation to describe position as a function of time is impossible.  The computer solves the problem numerically, chopping it up into very small time slices and finding a position and velocity for each of the times based on what is was at the previous time. In the PH36x Computational Physics series, students learn techniques to find numerical solutions to many differential equations and they can explore very complex, real-world situations. Roundy has chosen the Python programming language for this class, but the lessons are applicable to any language. In real physics research, few problems are already worked out in a textbook and numerical methods to solve them improve all the time, so the best information is often distributed all over the internet. Physics students must learn to navigate the body of existing literature and identify what information they need to solve a problem.

Another view of the solution shows the difference between displaying results on a linear plot and a logarithmic plot. The logarithmic plot (below) highlights the infection and recovery numbers, which are a small fraction of the overall population and we’d be tempted to ignore the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of sick people if we saw only the linear plot (above).

An example that David Roundy chose for the Spring 2020 Computational Physics course was about the spread of an epidemic, like covid-19.  It was all everyone was talking about, and he wanted the students to learn how their new computational skills are at the heart of epidemiological modeling that gives us the information to understand and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.  This isn’t an accurate model, Roundy stresses, but it has valuable elements – start with a simple model, probably unrealistic, test it, make sure it works as expected.  Add some complexity, test that, and then proceed. In his easy-to-read description at the PH366 course website, Roundy shows students how to model exponential growth – the increase in number of covid-19 cases is proportional to the number of cases: dI/dt = RI. Then you have to add in the real-world fact that the population is finite (with a doubling time of 1 day, the world human population would be infected in a little over a month). Some people recover and have immunity (we hope), so that must be factored into a more realistic model.  More complexity comes in when you consider how long infected people are contagious, and whether there is a period of immunity following recovery.

Actually, the problem is not too hard to set up – it’s the solution that becomes tedious.  That’s the beauty of computers is that they don’t care about tedium.  They swiftly toil through tedious calculations without becoming bored or tired and their error rate is effectively zero!  The humans have to set up the problem correctly, though, otherwise the results are meaningless.  And this is the skill that Roundy teaches his students. The screenshots below show an example of the students’ work in PH366, with the by-now-familiar plot of an exponential rise in infections at the start, with a peak and fall.  We see the basic recovery and death trends, too.

Screenshot of a student’s model of infections, recoveries and deaths due to an infectious disease

Another view of the solution shows the difference between displaying results on a linear plot and a logarithmic plot. The logarithmic plot (below) highlights the infection and recovery numbers, which are a small fraction of the overall population and we’d be tempted to ignore the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of sick people if we saw only the linear plot (above).

Linear and log plots emphasize different details

Julian Wulf, one of the Physics majors currently in PH 366 commented, “My favorite part of the class is how it allowed me to model physical situations that were too complex to picture, or model by hand. I have found it quite rewarding to finish coding something and have it modeled in front of me, a model that is often easy to adjust to new circumstances.” It’s easy to see how Julian would relish the challenge of modeling a much more complicated solution that factored in even more complexity such as social contact and real transmission rates. 

Teaching in the age of coronavirus:

To deliver PH366, David Roundy goes into Weniger Hall by himself every Tuesday and Thursday and turns on some 20 computers with separate Zoom sessions running (see the panorama view below).  The 40 students and the 4 TAs (teaching assistants) log in from their remote locations. The students implement Roundy’s “pair programming” strategy where they decide how to solve the problem and code in pairs, each providing the crucial check on the other to ensure that the steps make sense.  They constantly question their results, and look up techniques to improve their code and to interpret the results. It’s a real-world programmer situation!  Roundy and the teaching assistants hop between the Zoom breakout rooms to discuss with each pair of students how to troubleshoot and debug their code.  It wasn’t easy for the instructors to change their mode of operation from in-person to remote learning. TA Elena Wennstrom comments, “At the beginning, our TA meetings were devoted to brainstorming possible class formats, testing the limits of our Zoom powers, and discussing issues and possible improvements to the class we had the day before. Now we are more able to focus on the content, and trying out the assignments ourselves (like usual). I’m really proud of the system we’ve developed. Classes go surprisingly smoothly, and the time flies.”  Wennstrom adds that she gets more and better questions from the students in the remote mode.  Roundy remarks that he will offer this new mode of teaching to students with seasonal influenza in “normal” times to help curb the spread of that particular virus.

A panoramic view of the computers in the PH366 classroom in Weniger Hall

The students’ response:

The students agree. Julian Wulf says, “I think the transition to remote learning has mostly gone smoothly. There has been a rapid increase in how well things are being communicated remotely, as well as an increasing ability of the teaching assistants and professor to respond to difficulties we encounter while programming. I find myself looking forward to the continued improvement as each class has run more smoothly than the last, with the teaching assistants and Professor Roundy being increasingly able to react to difficulties people encounter by jumping in and out of Zoom breakout rooms to help.”

As “newbie programmer”, Wulf feels that the pair programming method helped him get over an initial fear of programming, and that he has learned to appreciate how quickly he learns to solve new problems. He found the disease and epidemic modeling project interesting, intellectually stimulating and fun.

Wulf says that the coding skills he is developing will be useful in the future, and that they have already entirely changed his perspective.  He now routinely plots equations in Mathematica to visualize a physical situation, and his new skills make the task “pain-free” and fun rather than being as a dreaded chore.

Former Physics major John Waczak, now a graduate student in Physics at the University of Texas at Dallas, offers similar observations about the Computational Physics series. He says that Computational Physics is an incredibly powerful tool for building physics understanding and to tackle problems that are otherwise unsolvable. It also enables him to create detailed visualizations of just about anything, and those visualizations don’t have to be static! Computers makes it possible to manipulate 2-, 3-, and even 4-dimensional data and create animations. “I have been using this skill a lot lately to visualize results in my [graduate] classes,” he says. Waczak further appreciates that PH36x made him an autodidact. “Dr. Roundy encouraged us to become familiar with the documentation and common programming forums like Stack Exchange. Instead of giving us working code to start with, we had to learn how to diagnose bugs and navigate the wide variety of (often incorrect) answers that exist online.” This meant that he became better programmer (and physicist). “I certainly do not know all of the tools and features that exist in the python programming language. What I do understand is how to evaluate the credibility of a resource and how to extract what’s important from the large body of existing information.” 

Prof. Roundy’s PH366 covid-19 assignment is available at http://sites.science.oregonstate.edu/~roundyd/COURSES/ph366/epidemic.html
The TAs for the class are Elena Wennstron, Kira McCoy, Alex Kuepper and Steven Neiman.

David Roundy is an Associate Professor of Physics at Oregon State University, and has been teaching and researching at OSU since 2006.  His work in computational physics spans exotic superconductors, metal-organic frameworks, classical and quantum density functional theory, biological motor proteins and many other topics. He invented the Darcs version control software.  He is a member of the Paradigms in Physics team with significant funding from the National Science Foundation for education-related research focusing on thermal physics and computational physics.

Dear Physics community,

The Physics Beavers are studying remotely this quarter.

Oregon State Physics is still operating, although our labs are in standby mode and our teaching is now all remote.   We’re using online channels like Zoom and Slack to maintain our tradition of student interaction in courses.  Students are still working together on problems and the Society of Physics Students  is launching an online game night.  We could not have done this without herculean efforts by faculty and students to create online labs, videos, and sophisticated live classes in 3 weeks.  Grad students are writing new labs and undergraduates are serving as learning assistants in the Virtual Wormhole.  See this video on vectors produced in our Lightboard studio to see what our students see.

On campus, research is on standby. Biophysicists Weihong Qiu and Bo Sun led the Physics effort to collect personal protective equipment (PPE) that Oregon State then donated to Oregon Emergency Management agencies.  https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/oregon-state-collects-nearly-200000-pairs-gloves-other-medical-supplies-covid-19-crisis  But, you can’t grow carbon nanotubes or cancer cell lines at home so on-campus research is now on hold.  In the short run, we can work on writing things up, doing the literature searches we never have time for and analyzing data, but we’re eager to get back to our labs. 

If you are interested in helping students financially in the short term, Oregon State has set up an emergency fund for students in need.  Many students (or their parents) have lost their jobs and are struggling with basics like books, rent,  food and the now vital internet connection. Please consider donating to the Beavers Care fund which is providing emergency funding to OSU students https://app.fundmetric.com/qvRUQF9u4 (You can designate the College of Science) or to the Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) https://studentlife.oregonstate.edu/hsrc which provides food boxes, loaner computers and other emergency supplies for students.  

We’ll be providing updates as things progress. 

Heidi Schellman

Undergraduate volunteers from the Department of Physics presented kid-friendly demonstrations last week at the 2020 Family Science Night at Franklin School, Corvallis.

The activities and demonstrations focused on mechanical phenomena: Marbles racing down tracks, carts on a frictionless rail, a chain fountain, and weight lifting with pulleys and double pulleys. In addition to mechanics, there were some new demos related to the physics of air included a curve-ball demonstration with paper cups, and a cloud in bottle.

Many thanks to our undergraduate volunteers Steve Nieman, Ryan French, Stephanie Keyes, and Genevieve Connolly, and faculty mentors Weihong Qiu and Ethan Minot.

Physics will attend several more Family Science Nights at local schools in the upcoming weeks.

With departmental funding and an SPS travel grant, undergraduate student Acacia Patterson attended PhysCon, the 2019 Physics Congress, in Providence, Rhode Island 11/14-11/16. Over 1000 people attended the conference, which is hosted by the jointly by Sigma Pi Sigma and the Society of Physics Students and has occurred every 4 years since 1928. A group of OSU students attended the last conference in San Francisco, California.

Acacia Patterson at PhysCon 2019

The 2019 Congress began with tours at Harvard, MIT, and Brown physics departments and at Optikos Corporation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Naval Submarine Base New London, and Rhode Island Hospital. The conference included speeches on the work of Einstein and Eddington from Dame S. Jocelyn Bell-Burnett and on the projects of GoogleX and how physics majors can prepare for a career in industry from Sandeep Giri. In addition, there were talks on the use of disruptive technology to mitigate climate change from Ellen Williams, on intellectual property rights from Jami Valentine Miller, and on the Big Bang and the future of astronomy from John Mather. Finally, Jim Gates shared a talk on how to use physics to become like Indiana Jones. A Congress workshop was held in which students brainstormed solutions to the issues that they and their organizations face.

The most important issues which the conference identified were imposter syndrome, mental health, and inclusiveness in physics. Two breakout sessions were offered with topics including science policy and communication, physics careers, physics and astronomy outreach, inclusivity, climate change, and graduate student panels. 

Acacia, who is a member of Janet Tate’s research group, was among the 150 students who presented their research during two poster and art exhibit sessions. Other activities included a lunch with scientists, a demo show at Brown and a tour at the LADD Observatory, a game night with Brown’s SPS chapter, and career and graduate school fairs. Acacia is grateful for this rewarding experience and looks forward to bringing what she learned to OSU. 

Physics research isn’t just for Physics majors. Biophysicist Weihong Qiu hosts students from BioHealth Sciences and Biochemistry in his lab as well.

Haelyn Epp and Weihong Qiu preparing motor protein samples in the lab.

BioHealth student Haelyn Epp used her #SUREScience scholarship to work in a biophysics lab on motor proteins. “My scholarship replaced one of my jobs, [and] allowed me to focus on research in a way I had not been able to,” says Haelyn. Read the full article at:

In January 2019, undergraduate students McKenzie Meyer, Austin Mullins, Acacia Patterson, Elena Wennstrom and Kasey Yoke, accompanied by graduate students Mackenzie Lenz and Nicole Quist, participated in the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at the University of Washington. The conference is a venue for students to share their research, to hear from successful women in physics, to learn about graduate school and employment, and to meet other physicists. The participants heard from keynote speaker Dr. Fabiola Gianotti of CERN, and others who discussed their careers and addressed the barriers to the success of women and minorities in STEM. The group also toured condensed matter labs in UW’s physics department and labs at the Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics, which are interested in dark matter, accelerator physics, nuclear physics, and gravity. During the “Physics Slam,” faculty members competed to deliver the most entertaining presentation of their research, and one of the many attendees to present posters was OSU’s Kasey Yoke who authored “Validation of Anti-Neutrino Data from the MINERvA Experiment at Fermilab” co-authored by physics department head Dr. Heidi Schellman. The group also heard from a career panel highlighting the diverse employment opportunities for physicists, and they had the opportunity to meet with representatives of employers in small groups. The participants attended sessions including those on impostor syndrome, applying and succeeding in graduate school, participating in undergraduate research, applying to jobs in the industry, and writing in science. This annual conference is open to all undergraduate physics majors and proved to be an invaluable experience for the attendees. There are several venues around the country where the CUWiP conferences are held simultaneously. OSU hosted the Pacific Northwest CUWiP conference in 2016 and in 2020, the Pacific Northwest CUWiP will be at Washington State University.

Undergraduate volunteers from the Department of Physics presented kid-friendly demonstrations at the annual Family Science Night at Franklin School, Corvallis, on January 24th.

  

The hands-on demonstrations focused on the electromagnetic spectrum, from invisible infra-red wavelengths to ultra-violet wavelengths, and everything in between. With an infra-red camera, kids could see through black plastic bags and discover warm hand prints on the table, and show their parents the heat leaks in a model house. At the other end of the spectrum, kids played with fluorescent markers and brought their artwork to life in a UV light box.

Many thanks to our undergraduate volunteers Rosemary Williams, Garrett Jepson, Christian Wood and Hunter Nelson.

Physics will attend several more Family Science Nights at local schools in the upcoming weeks.

Reposted from impact.science.oregonstate.edu

A senior’s gut decision in high school to major in physics holds steady four years later

Looking back on his gut decision in high school to major in physics after taking a class in it, graduating senior Abe Teklu remains somewhat mystified. “I guess I was just really confident,” he laughs.
Abe grew up around numbers and changing locations, moving from Ethiopia to Arizona at age six when his father got an engineering job at Intel, and then moving to Colorado before his family settled outside of Portland when he was 12.
His family is mathematically inclined. His mom is an accountant and his dad, who not so secretly yearned to be a mathematician, is an engineer who reads calculus books and earned a master’s degree in fluid dynamics. This home field advantage explains some of Abe’s youthful confidence (he “loved math” even as a child) but since then Abe has carried the ball all on his own.
At Oregon State as an Honors physics student, Abe has remained confident – at least most of the time – as well as comfortable with numbers and shifting contexts. He has had three research internships. The first was the summer after his sophomore year when he had a paid internship at Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) in Evanston, Illinois, in a rather niche but fascinating area of speculative research called astrobiology. There Abe analyzed mathematical models of theoretical predator-prey systems not limited to planet Earth.
The summer before his junior year, Abe headed down to San Diego for another paid internship, this time at the U.S. Department of Energy’s DIII-D National Fusion Facility. The facilty consists of a tokamak, a magnetic fusion device which Abe describes as “a big metal donut spinning plasma to get fusion energy.” Abe used magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) theory to model plasma confinement, with the goal of understanding which conditions better spread heat flux in the divertor region.
In his third research experience, Abe spent more than two years working in physics department head Heidi Schellman’s Particle Physics Research Group, analyzing neutrino-antineutrino data as part of the MINERvA, a major international research effort exploring matter-antimatter differences in neutrino physics. This involved aiming a beam of neutrinos from Illinois to South Dakota. Specifically, Abe worked on the recoil energies recorded when the rare neutrino-antineutrino reactions hit parallel strips of the scintillator, each of which is connected to a photomultiplier tube that determines how much energy is deposited in a strip.
Abe’s research experiences beyond the classroom gave him many advantages. For one, the DIII-D fusion internship formed the basis for his senior thesis. He also learned valuable lessons about the nature of scientific work.
“Unlike class, where there is always an answer, research is open-ended. It was difficult for me at first, but I came to appreciate that even if you don’t solve a problem, you are contributing to a much larger research effort with scientists around the world that will one day lead to a solution.”
Throughout his four years at OSU, community and relationships were key to Abe’s success, a sentiment reflected in his two top pieces of advice for new students.
“Have as much fun as you can freshman year. Talk toeveryone. You will have the most free time this year and so it’s a great time to meet new people and make friends. It gets harder after that.”
As an Honors College freshman, Abe enjoyed meeting friends in his dorm, Cauthorne, and also hung out in West so often that he was mistaken as a resident. He was and is “surprised by the amount of really smart people here. So many amazing people – and it’s so cool now to see all of my friends going off to exciting new destinations next year, from MIT to Brown to AI research!”
His second piece of advice?
“Talk to professors. Go to office hours. Not just to talk about academics, but just to talk about life. It’s helped me out a lot.”
Some of his favorite professors to hang out with are physicists Corinne Monogue, who he calls a “great teacher and person to talk to about anything at all” and Heidi Schellman. Abe suggests another good reason to talk with professors:  It’s a “great way to start research sooner.”
To wit, when Abe visited to Schellman during her office hours, she began describing her research and Abe just jumped in and asked if he could help.
“That day she gave me a key to her lab and I started doing research!” Two years later, Abe still has a coveted seat in Schellman’s Lab and is currently mentoring a new student to take his place after graduation.
Despite his success at OSU, Abe has faced his share of rejection and challenging times. Before joining the Schellman Lab, he was turned down as a freshman for research positions. The fall of his senior year was a really difficult time. After an intense summer working at the fusion facility DIII-D in San Diego, he returned to campus for a nonstop term which on top of his usual demanding coursework included studying for the Physics GRE, applying to graduate schools, writing his senior thesis and dealing with the inevitable “personal stuff.”
“I was overwhelmed and my confidence was shaken. Was I good enough? I had imposter syndrome. The only thing that got me out of it,” Abe reflects, “was just to endure. I just kept going step by step, every single day. I had to keep going and I did and it finally got better.”
It certainly did. Abe was accepted into the physics Ph.D. program at Stonybrook University in Long Island, New York, remarking with great enthusiasm upon the fact that there are no less than “60-70 physics researchers there!” Not wasting any time, he will jumpstart his graduate research this summer at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, working on a yet-to-be-defined research project with his graduate advisor.
Abe is grateful for the science education he has received at Oregon State and was not surprised when he heard that the Department of Physics recently received a national award for improving undergraduate physics education.
“All of my professors were great,” he said. The junior-year Paradigms in Physics series in particular, which was redesigned to include interactive pedagogies and real-world applications to better reflect how professional physicists think, was a real game-changer for Abe.
“[The junior-year Paradigms in Physics] was hard, but it was great and everyone in the class bonded together. We came out feeling that we could do anything!”
Abe’s gratitude extends to the many scholarships he received that helped cement his choice to go to Oregon State. He received the university’s four-year Academic Achievement award as well as a freshman year Honors College scholarship, a Kenneth S. Krane Scholarship in Physics and a David B. Nicodemus Scholarship in Physics.